PMQs review: Failing Grayling and Sarri-ball

Theresa May speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons

Theresa May speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons - Credit: Parliament

Like the struggling Chelsea manager, Theresa May once again showed she is unable to switch her tactics.

The leaders were back this week. May's trip to Belfast last week meant David Lidington and Emily Thornberry stood in, a steady and gaffe-free affair given that, unlike their ostensible superiors, both are capable of thinking on their feet.

But May and Corbyn were back in their usual places this week and began with both paying tribute to England's 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who has died aged 81.

This led to a sort of light-hearted 'I'm old enough to remember 1966' and 'me too ho ho ho we're so old' riffing, the type of entry-level banter you imagine May and Corbyn could just about muster on the walk to the Queen's Speech, in the days when he had things like Queen's Speeches and legislation.

The football talk got me thinking about tactics, and then to PMQs tactics. Corbyn is Claudio Ranieri - tinkering, never sure of his best approach, seen as a funny eccentric for a year or so and now widely derided.

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May is Maurizio Sarri - stubbornly sticking to one tactic and one tactic only, even when abundantly clear to all and sundry it isn't working.

In May's case that is to tell the questioner, pretty much regardless of what is being asked, is that the way to avoid no deal is to vote for her deal. It's wearying, ineffective and not a great argument against the claim she's trying to run the clock down until enough MPs are spooked into voting for it.

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This week Corbyn tinkered with his preferred strategy of reading out six unrelated questions regardless of what answers they solicit and focused on one subject.

It wasn't Olly Robbins' unguarded tap room talk though, nor Amber Rudd's admission on universal credit (indeed, it was only Heidi Allen, a Tory MP who sounds like a Labour one, who brought that up) but the ultimate Brexit microcosm: Chris 'Failing' Grayling and the ship company with no ships.

Corbyn described May's Brexit strategy as 'costly, shambolic and deliberately evasive', saying it was summed up by the fiasco around Seaborne Freight. The company, which won a contract to provide extra ferry services in case of a no deal, had 'no ships and no trading history'.

Grayling, said Corbyn, had told MPs last month he was 'confident the firm would deliver the service', adding: 'What went wrong?'

In response May said the contract went to three companies in total, with the other two making up 90% of the capacity, with both still in place. So that's alright then

She said: 'Due diligence was carried out on all of these contracts and as Mr Grayling made clear earlier this week, we will continue to ensure we provide that capacity, which is important in a no-deal situation.'

Corbyn asked, not unreasonably, how on earth May could say she had confidence in Grayling. May said he was delivering the 'biggest rail investment programme since the Victorian era', although on what, who knows? Trains without wheels? Stations with no platforms?

She then went on to say, not unreasonably, that MPs did not know if Corbyn backed a second referendum, backed a deal or backed Brexit. And that, yes - if he didn't want no deal he needed to vote for her deal.

'He prefers ambiguity and playing politics to acting in the national interest,' she said. 'People used to say he was a conviction politician - not any more.' Note this - it will be the Tory line to take in any snap election.

Elsewhere, the SNP's Ian Blackford began by congratulating those of his colleagues wearing yellow in honour of Catalan separatists currently in court. Ian Blackford was not wearing yellow.

He argued the prime minister 'continues to run the clock down' as he called on her to extend Article 50. Here she did the one tactical switch she is capable of - responding to any question from the SDP by reminding them they lost the 2014 independence referendum.

All in all, then, a narrow 1-0 win for Corbyn's lead over a side they really should be stuffing. RIP Gordon Banks - if this pair had been bearing down on you in goal you could have lit a fag and read a book.

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